Common People

I have just finished reading Alison Light’s 2014 book Common People: The History of an English Family (Fig Tree, Penguin Books). Someone recommended it on the family history course I did – and I would agree that it is well worth reading, whether you have ‘common’ ancestors or not! Most of her family branches had members who were poor, some who spent time in a workhouse – or its pauper equivalent, the lunatic asylum, as ‘pauper lunatics’. Some members of her ‘Light’ ancestors were wealthier – they built some of the buildings she grew up among – but they were Baptists and her grandfather had rejected them. He joined the navy and had nothing to do with his family – she knew very little about these ancestors until she did her research. This is a different kind of  history from the more common ones that discuss famous (or infamous), wealthy, or powerful people.

I did sometimes lose track of which ancestors were being discussed, but that didn’t really matter as it’s the social context and history that I think is most interesting (there are some family ancestor charts if you want to keep track of names). This is not nostalgic family history – these people were poor and suffered some appalling conditions – it’s not hard to imagine why my direct ancestors might have emigrated from England in the nineteenth century hoping for a better life in New Zealand.

Rather than just saying she describes some awful conditions, I’ll give an example. Here she is talking about one of her mother’s father’s ancestors: “In the parlance of the Poor Law a ‘bastard’ was first the mother’s responsibility, then her parents’, but if no support was possible and no man could be brought to book, a woman could ask for relief from the board of guardians who managed the local workhouse. Cheltenham, with its large population of servants, had far more unmarried mothers than many towns. The workhouse guardians did not offer ‘relief’ in the form of cash payments or even food and clothing to unmarried mothers, as some places did…. [It] offered them all the ‘House’… It was a standard procedure for a porter at the workhouse gate to push women hard in the stomach to test for imposters… New arrivals were immediately classified for dietary purposes. Mary Ann was deemed among the ‘able-bodied’ rather than ‘sick’ paupers and therefore officially subject to the full rigour of the workhouse regime, including a first nine days ‘gruel’ diet and a ‘low standard diet’ for the next fourteen days, aimed at driving as many applicants as possible back on to the streets. She survived to give birth to my mother’s grandmother, Sarah Hill, on 3 April 1858… (pp. 145-147)

“Cheltenham had a separate exercise yard for ‘lewd women’… the unmarried mother, rather than scrub floors or make beds like the other female ‘inmates’, should pick oakum, that is, spend hours teasing pieces of old tarred rope apart with her fingers….” Mary Ann died in the workhouse at age 27, when daughter Sarah was nine months old. The girl spent the next eight years of her life in the workhouse. “Sarah was there at the worst of times. Until the last quarter of the century, the workhouse did little more than warehouse orphans until they were old enough to be apprenticed or put into service. In the late 1850s…they found children and toddlers sitting close-packed against a wall… dull and stupefied on nursery floors. This was a world without toys, picture-books or personal possessions”… (p. 148).[1]

I’m sure you get the picture. Although I don’t know if any of my ancestors were ever in a workhouse, I believe one of my great-great-grandfathers was born in Wappenham in Northamptonshire and at the age of four months was subject to a removal order (dated 27 Jan 1812) by the Overseers of the Poor to Preston Capes with his parents – that was his father’s village and poor relief was generally only available from your own parish.[2]

These two Google Earth maps show where Preston Capes and Wappenham are – and the quick trip it would be today to travel between them. I don’t know how they traveled the distance in the winter of 1812 or how long it took.

The ‘Short sketch of the life of Mr Henry Jones of Masterton, 1811-1902’ written by ‘Delta’ (about 1896) does not give much information about his early life, except to say that he was engaged in farm work, “his early education was much neglected, dense was the spiritual darkness which then prevailed in English village life, but Methodism broke in and upon it, and arrested many on the down grade. Profane swearing was one of the characteristics of the villagers, and young Jones was an adept at that degrading vice…”[3] Obviously his decline was arrested by Methodism; but it says nothing of his parents or life until he met his future wife. He may have stayed in Preston Capes as he married there in 1832 on 12 October to Mary Willett (she signed her name Wilit and the minister spelled it Whillet). Both Henry and Mary signed it, but one of the witnesses, Elizabeth Jones, made her mark. In the 1841 census they are living in Preston Capes, he is an agricultural labourer and the four children have been born who will leave England with them on 1 January 1842 bound for New Zealand.

These photos show Henry and Mary (left) and on the right, sitting in the centre with some of their grown up children and their spouses in Masterton, New Zealand (taken before 1895 when Mary died). My great-grandparents are on the ground in front – Mary and Edward Jones.

I took some notes when Alison Light wrote about Wiltshire ancestors as it may be useful for my Wiltshire ancestor research and when she wrote about a bricklayer ancestor as my great-grandfather Samuel Morrell was a bricklayer.

In a postscript she wonders what she has learnt, has this search changed her. She thought she might find an ancestral place, but “what I found was movement” … “Enclosures of land, workhouses and the pauperization of the labourers drove many out on to the road, and this too is our island story, the other face of the Industrial Revolution, which produced losers as well as winners in a modernizing capitalist economy. A ‘free’ market always has its costs.” (p. 253)

I like to ‘find’ the English villages my ancestors came from, but even sometimes within a small area it is clear they often moved around. For example, children are sometimes born in different villages and I assume their father was moving for work; and then there are the longer moves – from Shropshire to Bristol to Llanelli (John Read), from Wiltshire to London (Jane Hudd); and from small Yorkshire villages to Leeds (Morrells and Tankards). My one ‘uncommon’ ancestor – the artist (although not a well known one) William Allsworth moved from Chatham in Kent to London.

But then there was the even longer move – from England to New Zealand. The first of my direct ancestors (the Jones’s) came in 1842 – often known as the ‘Hungry Forties’ in Europe[4], some in the 1850s and the subsequent few decades – they were all here by the mid-1880s. Only a few ever made the return journey (and then only temporarily) – my Read great-grandmother took her three daughters back for two years in the mid-1890s and my Morrell great-grandfather went back in the 1890s to oversee production of a sash fastener he had invented.


[1] She doesn’t use footnotes, but includes notes at the end giving sources for certain information on each page. For the Cheltenham workhouse most of her information comes from an unpublished PhD thesis by Christine Seal.

[2] This information came from a cousin. I haven’t confirmed or seen the documentation for this.  I also found the same information on the Preston Capes village website genealogy databaseHere. But they don’t give their source. Henry’s birth date as recorded in the family bible was 1 October 1811. I haven’t been able to find a baptism date on or

[3] This is my own copy – I no longer remember where or who I got it from (poor record keeping!) but have had it for a few decades. However, the published booklet is available to view online from the Wairarapa Archive (Ref: 92-92/1) here:

[4] See for example: Accessed 25 April 2016


2 thoughts on “Common People

  1. Thought provoking. I’m looking forward to reading Alison Light’s book – I’ve just taken it out of the library. I like the way she’s done the references – makes it more readable for general audiences. The ‘poorer’ side of my family also moved around quite a lot (long and short distances), particularly once they stopped being agricultural labourers and became miners. However the mining town conditions must have been awful. In 1912 my great grandmother died, aged 29, from TB and ‘exhaustion’ having had 7 children, 5 of whom died young.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s